Jaba Devdariani Oct 1, 2001
Russia’s apparent determination to crush Chechen separatists is posing a threat to Georgia’s sovereignty. A variety of Russian officials have suggested that Moscow should expand its military operations into Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, which Chechens, according to Kremlin claims, use as a base of operations. Georgian leaders counter that such action is unwarranted. They also worry that Russia will use the anti-terrorism issue as an excuse to delay the already overdue withdrawal of its troops from bases in Georgia.
Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have sought to link Chechen fighters with terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organization. The Kremlin has expressed its determination to launch an all-out assault to eliminate the Chechen separatists, and Russian officials now openly say that, in connection with their anti-terrorism operations, incursions and even possible occupation of Georgian territory may be necessary.
“We should insist on air strikes against terrorist bases that mostly accommodate mercenaries from other countries,” Vladimir Shamanov, governor of the Ulyanovsk region, said in a nationwide television interview on September 29.
Meanwhile, top Kremlin aide Sergei Yastrzhembski accused Georgia of harboring Chechen militants, including the field commander Ruslan Gelayev, and demanded that Tbilisi extradite the suspected rebels, the Interfax news agency reported September 28. After high-level talks between Russian and Georgian security officials, Tbilisi was reportedly ready to consent to the Russian demand.
“If this really happens, the Georgians will be making a real contribution to the joint struggle against terrorism,” Boris Gryzlov, Russia’s Interior Minister, said in a television interview September 28.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze says Tbilisi wants to maintain friendly relations with Moscow, adding that his government is willing to consider steps that address Russian concerns. At the same time, he denies that Chechen militants are using the Pankisi Gorge to launch attacks.
Other Georgian officials have ruled out the possibility of carrying out joint operations with Russian forces on Georgian territory. “We intend to fight crime on Georgian territory by ourselves,” Georgian Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze told Interfax on September 29.
Russia has long accused Georgia of not doing enough to bolster security along the Georgian-Russian frontier, and has pressured Tbilisi to improve border control. Georgia is home to more than 7,000 refugees from Chechnya. Moscow claims that Chechen separatists utilize the Pankisi Gorge as a safe haven, where they can regroup and launch strikes against Russian military forces in Chechnya. Moscow is also chagrined that Chechen advocates operate freely in Georgia, enjoying access to mass media, challenging Russia’s strategically important monopoly on information from Chechnya.
Despite Shevardnadze’s denial about the presence of Chechen militants in Georgia, Tbilisi is grappling with a crisis of governance in the Pankisi gorge. Georgian law enforcement agencies are not able to control local villages, which are traditionally dominated by local customs. The gorge is predominantly inhabited by the Georgians of Chechen descent, known as Kists. Since the arrival of Chechen refugees, its population has almost doubled, enormously straining the social and economic infrastructure.
While crime, including kidnapping for ransom and drug trafficking, is on the rise in the gorge, the existence of terrorist training camps or the transfer of a significant number of arms or personnel to Chechnya has never been confirmed. An OSCE observer mission has not been able to substantiate reports of Chechen bases.
Since regaining independence in 1991, Georgia has been riven by separatism and economic dysfunction, leaving the central government unable to exert its authority over the entire country. Potential Russian military action in northern Georgia could fuel the complete breakdown of the government’s authority, possibly causing upheaval across the country.
Shevardnadze is faced with a tough dilemma. His grip on power is facing intense pressure from all sides. Before the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Shevardnadze had relied heavily on Washington for support against Russian pressure. Georgia also hoped to reap a huge economic benefit from its participation in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline project, of which the United States is a major backer.
Now, local analysts fear, the United States’ diplomatic support will dwindle, as US officials concentrate on terrorism-related issues. Compounding concerns is that US officials, desiring to maintain Russian support for anti-terrorist operations in Central Asia, will make compromises with Moscow on Caucasus issues. Georgian observers believe that Russia would move quickly to consolidate its “sphere of interest” in the Caucasus if the United States eased its current support for Georgia, as well as Azerbaijan.
At the very least, Georgian analysts expect Russia to ignore earlier commitments to withdraw troops from bases on Georgian territory. In July, Moscow failed to hand over a base at Gudauta, as was specified under a 1999 agreement. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Talks on resolving a lingering dispute over the base have dragged on. Given the sudden shift in geopolitical realities in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Georgian analysts expect Russia to give up any pretense of negotiations and keep its troops in Georgia to use as leverage to compel Tbilisi’s compliance with Kremlin policy.
Jaba Devdariani is a founding director of the United Nations Association of Georgia (www.una.org.ge) and Research Director of the UNAs program for applied research.